Art Tip - How I "ground" my canvases

“Grounding” is the term given to the application of a “ground” color onto the canvas which will then be painted over. It’s the first step in the process of painting and should (almost) never be skipped.

Why should I ground my canvases?

There’s two reasons why you should ground your canvases before painting.

Psychology

Staring at a bright, white, blank canvas can be difficult for artists. It almost invokes artistic block. You can’t begin to see shapes, form or structure on a blank canvas. By grounding the canvas, you’ve already begun the process of making art. Psychologically, you’ve begun painting. The canvas is no longer a virgin. You may also begin to see shapes in the ground that could help if you’re struggling for inspiration.

Color control

Whatever color you put on the canvas as a ground will show through the brush strokes. Using a colored ground is a great way to add subtle warmth or subtle coolness to the overall painting. For example, I like to use a burnt sienna ground to warm up cold winter landscapes. You can also experiment with using other complimentary color combinations (Purple ground for an image that would be mostly yellow, red ground for something mostly green.)

How to ground your canvases

Ingredients for grounding a canvas:

  • 1 glass jar with a screw lid. A salsa jar works perfectly for this.

  • An old paint brush that still works but you don’t care about.

  • Kitchen roll/shop cloth/rags

  • Paint (I have a cheap 37ml tube of burnt sienna)

  • Turpentine/mineral spirits

  • Impasto medium (optional)

  • Screws, washers and other metal things

  • Canvas

  • A place to leave your canvases to let them dry

  • Gloves

Safety Tip - Wear gloves. If you’re working with oil paints, you need to have a box of disposable gloves in your studio. There’s stuff in the oil paints that you don’t want to absorb into your system (Cadmium for example) Also, if you’re working with turpentine, do it in a well ventilated area.

1 - Make sure the jar is clean and free of any bits of dried salsa. Sounds obvious, but one of my paintings does have a small fleck of dried tomato on it. (I’m sure in 100 years when art historians are looking through my work, using this blog as a reference, this is going to send them into a spin trying to figure out which one. <laughs maniacally>)

2 - Squeeze a bunch of paint into the jar. In my case, burnt sienna. Sometimes I like to reduce the intensity of the burnt sienna with some ultramarine blue. My jar is 15oz. I’m going to fill it to maybe around 5oz. So I use about half of a 1.25oz (37ml) tube of burnt sienna oil paint. I add the same amount of impasto medium (optional but it does stop the turpentine from thinning the paint too much) then I add 4-5oz of thinner (turpentine/mineral spirit).

3 - Using an old pencil, I stir the mixture around, working the thinner through the paint and impasto to get an even mix. (Side note: it’s never going to be even. You will always find chunks of paint. I go with the flow, this is all going to be painted over anyway.)

4 - Add the screws, washers and any other items that are metal and will help grind up this mixture. I make a jar of this and it lasts me a couple of months depending on the size and number of my paintings, so this will be sitting around for some time and the screws will help stir the mixture when I come to pick up the jar next time.

5 - Grab your paint brush, rag/kitchen roll/shop cloth, your canvas and now’s the time to put down some newspaper or something to cover whatever surface you’re going to work on. Oil paint will stain clothing, carpets, flooring, everything. And this mixture is watery, so it could drip without you knowing.

6 - Brush the mixture onto the front face of your canvas. There’s no need to cover every single area with the brush, we will work the mixture with the rag. Take this opportunity to be free with the canvas and paint. Imagine yourself as Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock - more Rothko than Pollock.

7 - Using the rag, wipe the paint mixture over the canvas and along the edges. The rag will absorb much of the mixture and help you get a thin stain over the canvas. Experiment with wiping varying amounts of paint off the canvas to achieve different intensities of color. It’s important to understand that all of this will be painted over, so there’s no need to be too concerned with what it looks like. You’re just looking to remove all traces of the pure white of the canvas and to start your painting.